Death in the Ruins
Outside magazine, September 1995
Death in the Ruins
They come to Cambodia for the cheap living, the cheap grass, the chance to flirt with a dangerous part of the world. But these days, young Western travelers have been paying the price for straying too far off the beaten path.
In the café of the Capitol Hotel, a graying heap of concrete near Phnom Penh’s Russian Market, scruffy Western travelers hoist bottles of Angkor beer, scribble in their notebooks, and trade banter with the pedicab drivers, bar girls, and beggars who spill in from the teeming sidewalks to work their hustles. It’s a familiar setting to anyone who’s traveled in Asia. In
Phanh Sopheap, the round-faced manager of the Capitol, was a study in good cheer when I stopped by last spring. “Ninety-eight percent of the backpackers, when they come to Cambodia, they come to me,” he told me. As he spoke, his hand stirred soothingly in cash drawers spilling over with dollars and Cambodian riels. “It’s good business,” he said. “Very good business.”
But while Phanh may thank Cambodia’s recently proclaimed peace for his budding prosperity, it is the legacy of war that attracts many of the Capitol’s customers to his homeland. “I’m here ’cause of a bloke I spoke to in Sydney,” said Danny Allen, a 19-year-old from South London who had been traveling for four months in Thailand, Vietnam, and Australia. “I’d never seen anyone so
A young woman at a nearby table agreed that it was exciting, though not quite for the reasons Danny mentioned. Wearing dark sunglasses in the deep shade of the café, she sat in a tank top and shorts with her bare feet propped on her kicked-off cowboy boots. As she puffed away at a stogie-size joint, she made it clear that her idea of traveling did not require any
The backpackers at some of the other tables seemed a bit more shaken by the world they were discovering. John from Australia was recovering from his visit to Toul Sleng, a former Khmer Rouge prison and torture chamber that now stands as a memorial to the victims of Pol Pot’s massacres. “This was in our lifetime,” he said. “To see a country so wasted, it really makes you think.”
No doubt it was during a discussion not unlike this one that Jean-Michel Braquet, Mark Slater, and David Wilson met at the Capitol Hotel in late July 1994. The three backpackers–a Frenchman, an Englishman, and an Australian, aged 27, 28, and 29–decided to travel together to Kampot, a port town by the palm-studded shores of the Gulf of Siam. The Cambodian government had been
In the previous year and a half, the train from Phnom Penh to Kampot had been sacked in 18 separate ambushes as it chuffed along the edge of the Elephant Mountains. Passengers had been robbed, kidnapped, and killed in these attacks, which were staged both by Khmer Rouge guerrillas and by “bandits”–a word generally used in Cambodia to denote undisciplined government soldiers
Phanh Sopheap recalled a conversation he’d had with Braquet, Slater, and Wilson just before the three embarked on their journey. “Those guys come in here and drink three Cokes,” the hotel manager told me. “They say they want to go to the beach. I tell them take a taxi. They ask how much. I say about 12,000 riels each.” He punched a calculator and showed me that 12,000 Cambodian
Phanh worked the calculator: $1.42–a difference of $3.19. He smiled. “They say, ‘Oh, we want to see countryside. We take the train.’ Sometimes, to save a little money can be very expensive.”
The Cambodian roads, however, could be just as risky as the rails. National Routes 3 and 4, which run from Phnom Penh to Kampot Province, were famous as hunting grounds for government soldiers who liked to use their numerous “security checkpoints” to shake down motorists. The bodies of three young Westerners abducted on Route 4 had been recovered just one week before Braquet,
When it came to traveling in Cambodia, nobody could say what move would look stupid tomorrow. “You don’t want to get into the game of second-guessing travel decisions in this country,” one local journalist told me. “The road’s a mess, so these three guys took the train. It was a tactical decision. Lots of people took the train before them. It’s a nice ride–if you live to tell
The train that Braquet, Slater, and Wilson boarded at the Phnom Penh station around dawn on July 26 of last year was a typically ominous example of Cambodian rolling stock–armor-plated and pocked with rusty gouges left by bullets and shrapnel. Two flatbed cars, fronted with a crude steel plow, were pushed ahead of the locomotive to absorb the explosion in the event that the
Part of the pleasure of adventure, of course, is defying timidity, and Braquet, Slater, and Wilson were not put off by the train’s battle-ready appearance. Still, none of the three could call himself an old Cambodia hand. David Wilson had been in the country the longest–almost a month. He had been up to the ruins of Angkor, the complex of temples dating from the ninth to the
Mark Slater was a veteran globe-trotter, a son of the British working class who’d been on the road for much of his adult life, returning home from stints in Thailand, Egypt, Israel, and South Africa just long enough to save up for the next journey. In May, he had quit his job in a plastics factory in Corby, Northamptonshire, and embarked on a one-year tour of India. Then, on
Braquet, a native of Nice, had also just arrived in Cambodia. He had previously been on a Himalayan trek through Nepal, where he, too, had been stricken with dysentery. Braquet was on the mend, but he felt depleted, and he was eager for a holiday on the coast.
By all accounts, the three were having a grand ride as the train worked its way south. They kicked back on the roof, passed a few joints, and watched the rainy-season landscape slide by–hours of rice paddies picketed with towering sugar palms.
Then the flat land began to lift on either side of the track, narrowing to a valley near Kampong Trach, where all the past ambushes on the train had occurred. It was here that the local passengers began to pray.
When they are not at the capitol hotel, backpackers can usually be found around Phnom Penh at haunts like the Café No Problem or the Heart of Darkness bar, comparing stomach parasites or trading battered paperbacks of On the Road or Dispatches or the Bhagavad Gita. Measuring their itineraries in neither days nor
But the grand tour was a privilege of the moneyed classes, whose members traveled about Europe with a steamer trunk full of evening clothes, letters of introduction to proper society homes, and quite likely a maiden aunt or some other suitable chaperon in tow. Now the steamer trunk has given way to the backpack and the money belt and perhaps a shoulder bag of some colorful
Of course, the backpackers have beaten a track of their own, known in Asia as the banana pancake circuit, after the cheap sustenance served at the guest houses that cater to the scene from Bali to Brunei, Bangkok to Bangalore–and back again, any which way you want to zig it or zag it. Lonely Planet’s South-East Asia on a Shoestring has sold more
The first Lonely Planet guidebook to Cambodia had been published only in September 1992. You could still be among the first to “rediscover” the place while the smoke of war slowly lifted. From 1991 to 1993, the country had been run by a massive United Nations peacekeeping force. By the time the blue helmets left, there was a new, independent government in place, and foreigners
But Cambodia’s peace was a peace in name only. The Khmer Rouge, which had presided over four years of slaughter in which one million of the country’s eight million people died, had been driven from Phnom Penh by the Vietnamese communists in 1979. Still, the rebels continued to wage a destabilizing guerrilla war from jungle camps along the Thailand border and in various
Moreover, the Khmer Rouge had made kidnapping a full-scale enterprise, a key source of manual labor and income. Each year thousands of Cambodian villagers are taken by the insurgents and ransomed for as much as $40,000 and as little as a bag of rice or a chicken. And now that the country has opened to the outside world, tourists and expatriate workers are regularly pulled into
Even before her release, two Britons and an Australian, all in their midtwenties, were abducted from a taxi as they traveled from Phnom Penh to Sihanoukville. Whether they were taken by the Khmer Rouge or bandits has never been established, but it was their remains that were recovered from the jungle just before Braquet, Slater, and Wilson set off by train for Kampot.
No place in the world is entirely safe; riding the New York subway or living on a California earthquake fault can certainly be as dangerous as traveling in Cambodia. But Westerners in the tropics have always had mythomaniacal tendencies. In those baked, chaotic places, the rules of home don’t seem to apply, and just being there can seem like a dramatic act. While the colonial
One can only imagine the terror and confusion that Braquet, Slater, and Wilson felt when explosions shook their train in the early afternoon of July 26. Some 40 Khmer Rouge fighters stormed down from the hills, machine guns blazing. In the brief battle that followed, 11 passengers and two of the train’s security detail were killed before the guards gave up and sought only to
The guerrillas boarded the train, sweeping through the cars, taking whatever they could lay their hands on: motorbikes, rice, jewelry, cash, cigarettes, chickens, pigs–everything but the clothes on the passengers’ backs. They loaded their booty onto bullock carts and then built a campfire and cooked themselves dinner from their spoils. After releasing most of the passengers,
Em Op, the train’s chief engineer, later said, “It was an average attack.” A woman who had been riding the train and was briefly detained by the Khmer Rouge told Cambodia’s English fortnightly, the Phnom Penh Post, “I saw the foreigners lying…in a small cottage. They were crying. They were shackled at night.” She also said that a Khmer Rouge
When I arrived in Phnom Penh in the scorching dry season last February, there were daily reports of major battles between government and Khmer Rouge forces 200 miles away, yet the menace felt oddly remote. Strolling along the embankment over the Tonle Sap River at dusk, I watched fishermen in their sampans throw nets in spinning halos. Families gathered at the pavilion across
Yes, the country is unspeakably poor, maimed, stunted by corruption and hunger. But there is great spirit in the streets–even laughter. Phnom Penh, radically depopulated during the Zero Years, as Pol Pot dubbed his reign of terror, is now a bustling city. Travelers barter in the markets and wander along the boulevards, sightseeing at the fantastically ornate Silver Pagoda or
Against these backdrops, it is the young, tall Westerners in their bright and slightly tattered costumes who appear exotic–as if they had stepped in from the jungle. One morning in Phnom Penh, I met up with Danny Allen, the young Briton who had come to Cambodia on the recommendation of his thrill-seeking friend in Sydney. Danny was having breakfast with Guido Marx, a
The road ran through parched rice paddies; a severe drought had blighted more than one-third of Cambodia’s rice harvest. Staring out the window at the desiccated land, Guido said: “It’s clear why you don’t see fat people here.”
Guido, who had been traveling for 16 months–in India, Nepal, Hong Kong, Indonesia, Malaysia, and Thailand–was tall and very skinny, but he said that he had been a fat person himself not long ago. Then he got sick in India and lost 40 pounds. I was reminded of Jean-Michel Braquet and Mark Slater, both of whom had come to Cambodia suffering from dysentery; it seemed these young
“I’m getting used to it now,” he said.
It was a phrase I’d heard over and over again from the backpackers. What was it about this notion–getting used to things? It was as if Cambodia served Western visitors as a sort of Outward Bound program: You stare into the abyss and get your perspective adjusted.
But then Guido said, “I never want anyone pointing a gun at me.” He laughed. “You can always go home and tell people you heard gunfire without going to hear it.”
Danny shrugged. “I hear the Khmer Rouge are mostly after Americans now,” he said. “So I’ve got a big Union Jack in my backpack. I’ll wave that at them if I get in a pinch.”
The thousands of skulls shelved in the memorial stupa at Choeung Ek suggested that the Union Jack might not do the trick. As a commemoration of a national catastrophe, it was very poorly maintained. Our driver, who had told me that “only” his brother and his father had been killed during the Pol Pot years, did not seem to relate his losses to the monument. Parked beneath a
The exhibits at Choeung Ek were, in fact, weathering into oblivion. The few explanatory labels had faded or peeled away. The wooden markers that once identified the mass graves had been scavenged for fuel. All that remained were the tower of skulls and the open pits. The skulls were beautiful and strangely intact–no sign of the bludgeoning that the Khmer Rouge is said to have
Set apart from the others were several skulls behind the label EUROPEAN.
On August 3, eight days after the hostages were taken from the Kampot train, the Khmer Rouge released photographs of the three backpackers, standing barefoot and bedraggled in the rain at the Phnom Vour camp. The photographs and an accompanying audiotape were delivered to Cambodian government officials through a network of intermediaries, which is how the negotiations would be
The hostages said that they were fine and that they were being forced to work. At one point, Mark Slater made a statement that was understood to be an addition to the Khmer Rouge script. He said, “Don’t listen to the government, just do what you feel.” But nobody was sure what he meant–whether he was addressing his family or the Western diplomats and Cambodian government
The first ransom prices bandied about ranged from $50,000 to $150,000 a head–in gold. However, the Australian, British, and French embassies each had a no-ransom policy, arguing that any payment would set a precedent, making every other Westerner in Cambodia a potential Khmer Rouge cash source. And reports of ransom-raising efforts by private groups–David Wilson’s teammates
The situation appeared to be spiraling out of control. A number of freelance intermediaries, ranging from Australian mercenaries to assorted Cambodian government officials, sought to get in on the action. As reporters flocked to Kampot Province, they sent back more and more baroque stories of new hopes and new disappointments, until finally the government kicked all journalists
What had begun as an ugly but relatively straightforward kidnapping for profit had turned political. On August 16, the Khmer Rouge’s clandestine radio station upped the ante, promising to release the hostages if Australia, Britain, and France, three of Cambodia’s key financial supporters, would cut off all further assistance to the royal government. The announcement provoked a
In the midst of the shelling, a reporter from London’s Sunday Times managed to arrange a radio conversation with the hostages. “It is as if they are bombing to kill us,” Mark Slater said in that August 19 interview. “We hear…heavy machine-gun fire, mortars…rockets. We jump in the trenches and we are so, so
Slater’s voice was heavy with despair; his dysentery had come back with a vengeance. “I am very weak,” the former factory hand said. “We get up at five, have something to eat at ten–rice, pumpkin. We lie about…until nighttime. At about seven or eight o’clock we get shackled up. When the bombs start going off, we have to hop as best we can to the trenches. When the sun goes
Braquet got on the line and said, “Our hope is just falling every day. It is a very difficult situation to handle even if you are a strong person.” Braquet had contracted malaria at Phnom Vour, and he was also suffering from an infected leg wound received when he stepped on a sharpened bamboo stake–a booby trap. “We are going to die here,” he said. “I am too young to die. I am
Wilson, too, was feverish. “Our spirits are getting worse by the day, to be very honest,” he said.
“I love [my family] very dearly,” Slater said, “and unless the bombing stops, we have no chance of living. There is no way for us to leave if the ransom is not met. Every bomb we hear is like a nail in the coffin. We are already inside the coffin, since we were told we were going to be executed a week or two ago.”
After this conversation was published, the British hostage’s father, Jack Slater, wrote to the Braquet and Wilson families. “Nobody bar us knows how it feels at this moment,” he observed. “They are all our sons now.”
The foreign correspondents club in Phnom Penh, a lofty space with an open balustrade facing out over the confluence of the Tonle Sap and Mekong Rivers, is a favorite hangout for journalists, foreign aid workers, embassy staffers, businessmen, and the ordnance specialists who work as de-miners in Cambodia. It’s a place of would-be Marlowes, swapping tales and seeking to explain
I found the expatriates at the FCC reluctant to revisit the harrowing months of the hostage crisis. The ordeal had undermined their sense of ease in their adopted home and shattered what optimism they might have had about the country’s prospects for reconstruction. Many people said they had not ventured outside Phnom Penh for the better part of a year.
One night at the FCC, as scores of lizards skittered over the yellow stucco walls to the beat of Van Morrison, I sat with Nate Thayer, the Cambodia correspondent for Far Eastern Economic Review. A native New Englander, Thayer is widely regarded as one of the most knowledgeable observers of Cambodian affairs. He has a shiny, shaved scalp, a
Recently, Thayer told me, he had returned from a quasi-scientific expedition into the Cambodian hinterlands in search of the kouprey, an obscure Southeast Asian bovine that has been listed as extinct for the past half-century. Sponsored by the Cambodian government, the expedition forged into the jungle with a small herd of elephants, several montagnard trackers, and an arsenal
Thayer’s take on “the hostage thing,” as the serial kidnappings of Westerners had come to be called, was that anyone who had ever imagined that tourists were immune to the violence and predation of Cambodia had simply been deluding himself. On the other hand, he didn’t seem to feel that the security situation was any worse than it had been at other times in the recent past. In
Thayer spat another stream of tobacco juice into his can. “It’s kind of a discombobulated system,” he said. “But you get used to it.”
At the end of August, a videotape of Braquet, Slater, and Wilson made its way through the government lines at Phnom Vour and back to Phnom Penh. The three hostages, skinny and exhausted, showed the bomb shelters they had dug. “The bombing is day in and day out,” said Wilson.
Braquet added, “It’s just killing peasants.”
It later emerged that by this time Pol Pot was interested in using the three hostages not for financial gain, but rather as political pawns in the showdown between the government and the Khmer Rouge. The three were “getting thinner and thinner from day to day,” a captured Khmer Rouge soldier told the Phnom Penh Post “I don’t know why they eat so
As the Cambodian army increased the intensity of its attack, a new tape recording of Mark Slater circulated in Phnom Penh. “If the governments won’t pay for our release,” he begged, “please do the moral thing and give our families the opportunity to arrange our release.”
The hopelessness of Slater’s pleas still haunts his father. “We couldn’t have paid the ransom ourselves,” Jack Slater says. “But if anything could have been done, we would have done it. We’d have sold the house. And yet this wasn’t like some Hollywood movie, where you leave the money in a kiosk somewhere. It’s the jungle. And these people are pathological killers.”
On October 16, Khmer Rouge Colonel Chhouk Rin, the second in command at Phnom Vour, defected to the government army with some 150 of his men. Chhouk Rin was the man who had masterminded the raid on the train, but he had had a bitter falling out with the Phnom Vour chieftain, Noun Paet. For his defection, the government paid Chhouk Rin an award of a few hundred dollars and his
Once on the government’s side, Rin assisted in the assault on Phnom Vour, and by the end of October Noun Paet and his remaining troops were forced to retreat from the mountain, taking with them some $30,000 to $40,000 that Paet had finagled in one of many aborted ransom schemes.
Then, on October 30, the news trickled back to Phnom Penh that the bodies of Braquet, Slater, and Wilson had been found in a shallow grave not far from the Phnom Vour Base. Intelligence reports suggest that they were murdered sometime between the eighth and the 28th of September.
When I visited the military hospital in Phnom Penh–a hellish, filthy place of 500 beds and 700 patients crammed in hallways swarming with flies–I met Lieutenant Soth Hing, who had been stationed at the captured Phnom Vour base until he stepped on a land mine and lost his right leg. The lieutenant said he was one of the men who discovered the graves of the backpackers. He had
Soon after the remains were recovered, the Khmer Rouge claimed that the three had been killed because they were spies. “They were acting on behalf of the communist You’en [Vietnamese] to kill the Cambodian People,” Khmer Rouge radio chided insanely. “They were war criminals.” But the former Khmer Rouge commander turned Royal Armed Forces colonel, Chhouk Rin, told the Phnom Penh Post, “What they were killed for, I don’t know…. It brought no advantage.”
One of the great unanswered questions of the whole ordeal remains: Did the three Western embassies do all they could to save their citizens? When I posed this question to Tony Kevin, the Australian ambassador in Phnom Penh, he said, “My answer is always, ‘What would you have done differently?’ “
It is an answer that offers no consolation whatever to the families of Braquet, Slater, and Wilson. “We always hoped that Mark would come home and tell his own story,” Jack Slater said after his son’s coffin was returned to England. “We prayed that he would decide not to go to some of the places he went to. But we could never have stopped him. He was a man, not a teenager.”
When Dr. Paul Knapman, a British coroner, reported on his autopsy of Mark Slater late last year, he said that it would be a pity if the hostage’s “harrowing story” were to “dampen the intrepid spirit of young people who so often travel abroad these days.”
The coroner had no need to worry: 1994 was a boom year for tourism in Cambodia, with visits up 50 percent from 1993, despite the hostage crises that filled the local newspapers from April through the end of the year.
The flow of ink had stopped only for a few weeks in January of this year when Susan Hadden, a college professor from Texas, was gunned down with her guide in their minivan while touring the outlying temples of Angkor near the provincial capital of Siem Reap. The government tried to play down the attack–which involved not only AK-47s, but also B-40 rockets–as a case of
When I visited Siem Reap, it was surrounded on all sides by active battlefields, but the town had a pleasantly sleepy air, with oxcarts piled high with thatch and naked schoolboys splashing in the narrow river at the city center. To the north of Siem Reap, the tilled land gives way to forests of towering gum trees, zinging with cicadas. Suddenly the road forks, and there is the
A century ago, an eccentric Scottish doctor-adventurer named John MacGregor worked his way overland from Bangkok to Saigon and wrote up his travels in a high-spirited and pointedly irreverent volume, Through the Buffer State. Visiting the temples of Angkor, MacGregor, like everyone before and since, waxed euphoric at the grandeur and beauty, the
To solve the riddle, MacGregor proposed an antithesis to the Darwinian notion of human evolution–“the theory of de-volution,” he called it, or simply, “the MacGregor theory.” To wit: “It must always be remembered that progress, in whatever sphere, is the result of an effort, while degeneracy is but the result of mere negation.”
The man was plainly a crank, but he was onto something that must puzzle us all as we find the planet steadily diminished and as we travel to extraordinary lengths, even at some peril, to ogle what was built a millennium ago, when people were supposedly so much less advanced than we. Nobody knows exactly how the ancient Khmer kings managed to erect this staggering complex of
That is part of the wonder of Angkor, and so, too, is the exquisite mixture of preservation and decay: the softened edges of the weathered limestone, the endless carved reliefs, the sinuous roots of the giant spong trees, and the spires of the Bayon temple, each with four mammoth faces gazing serenely off toward the diverse points of the compass. The complex seems less a work
Here and there amid the ruins, I ran into backpackers, alone or in small groups, carrying their Lonely Planet guides, their water bottles, their cameras. I was always astonished at how young most of them looked–younger, it seemed, than their twenty- or thirtysomething years. Even the faces of the little Khmer children who chased after them with ice buckets of soda and
The unguarded awe of the backpackers reminded me that this was where David Wilson had spent his last days of freedom, although Jean-Michel Braquet and Mark Slater had never made it here. I wondered what it was that had drawn them to Cambodia in the first place. What were they looking for?
Angkor seemed an eloquent answer: As the jungle twitched close and parrots jeered in the canopy, each gust of wind and each passing cloud subtly shifted the light, revealing the temples in some new aspect. Here was a world bursting with the forces of creation, and, at the same time, a graveyard.
Perhaps to claim this world, one had to risk being claimed by it.
Philip Gourevitch is a contributing editor of the Forward. His article “No More Tigers” appeared in the February issue of Outside.